Boeing Tragedy: Brazilian Air Control Gave Bad Instructions

A transcript from the conversation between the Brazilian air control tower and the American pilots who got involved in Brazil’s worst air crash ever, with 154 dead, shows that the accident might have been caused by bad or at least badly-worded instructions given the pilots by Air Traffic Control (ATC).

In the transcript of the conversation obtained by weekly news magazine Veja the Cindacta 1 control center, based in Brazilian capital Brasí­lia asks the Legacy plane piloted by Americans Joe Lepore and Jan Paladin to change their radio frequency, and then they maintain the following dialogue:

Legacy –  Brasí­lia, N600 transferring.

Controller –  N600 squawk identification, maintaining flight level 370, under radar surveillance.

Legacy –  Roger.

According to the magazine’s explanation, in the first sentence, the Legacy pilot tells Brasí­lia that he has understood the message and that he has changed his radio frequency. N600 is the small plane’s call sign.

In his response, the air controller asks the pilot to identify his airplane through the transponder – squawk in aviation lingo – and he then instructs the Legacy to maintain its altitude at 37,000 feet.

The expression "under radar surveillance" indicates that the radar would be controlling the flight. Answering "Roger" the pilot confirms that he understood the directions. 

Apparently the Legacy pilot assumed that from that time on he wouldn’t need to get in touch with air control anymore and that any change would be conveyed from the control tower to the pilot. According to the air controller’s manual, a plane under radar surveillance is not required to inform its position to the ATC since the aircraft is being followed closely by the air controllers. 

"The correct would have been for the controller to complement his sentence, warning that the altitude of 37.000 feet was valid just through Brasí­lia. It seems that there was a problem of communication between the pilot and the air control," says Brazilian major-brigadeer Renato Cláudio Costa Pereira, who was the general secretary of the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) from 1997 to 2003.

Brasí­lia’s air controllers have told investigators that they tried to reach the Legacy’s pilots five times without success. While there is a possibility that the radio’s volume was too low or even that the pilots turned the equipment off, it’s common knowledge, according to Veja, that communications over the Amazon skies between  Brasí­lia and Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, are often disrupted.

"Planes may remain up to 15 minutes without contact with the control tower. The same happens in the stretch between Manaus and Caracas," says Varig airline’s commander í‰lnio Borges, who is the director of the National Union of Aircraft Workers. The only solution in this case, he says, is to install new antennas in the area since they are too far apart.

After flying over Brasí­lia the Legacy’s transponder stopped working. According to the magazine, the Cindacta’s computers then malfunctioned. Although they couldn’t know the altitude of the small plane the computers automatically adjusted the altitude to 36,000 feet, while in fact the Legacy was at 37,000, in the same level as the Boeing 737 flying in the opposite direction.

The air controllers trusted the new information. 40 minutes later the crash with Gol’s Flight 1907 occurred over the Amazon jungle.


  • Show Comments (8)

  • Mark Rada

    former Eastern Airline
    Where is the ATC Transcript ? It should be published along with the flight data/ Voice recorder transcripts…STOP THE SPECULATION BY THE UNQUALIFIED ! LET THE FACTS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES IN THE MID-DAY SUN

  • Nabo

    You know what?
    Costinha, I agree with you about wanting off the plane if the captain turns the radio off, but as a passenger, how would you know?

    I was once on a long Varig flight where the flight crew apparently turned on the autopilot and went to sleep. The plane flew through the center of a thunderstorm. The plane shook violently, dove steeply, and shook violently again. People were screaming and things were flying around the cabin (maybe people too, I was too busy holding on to look). After the plane regained normal attitude and people stopped screaming, the pilot got on the intercom and said in a panicked voice “Everyone – put on your seatbelts!”. I think that we had figured that out by then. Anyway, that was the last time that I flew on Varig.

  • ch.c.

    To all the brazilians aviation experts…….
    ….from the general public, to “apparent experts”, to pilots, to journalists, and including your various Ministers……. :

    Assuming, since it is still assumptions, that the error was due to your ATC,
    hopefully you will ALL ask the same justice as the justice you requested if the US pilots were guilty, namely that your ATC will be accused of Involuntary Manslaughter and that you will ALL send your apoligizes to the US pilots !!!!

    By the way, since it Could be now that your ATC are reponsible, did your justice also ask for their passports ????? If not, that would be the second unfairness.

  • costinha

    You know what?
    If I am in the back seat and the captain turns off the radio, I am bailing out!

  • ex pat

    Here we go….
    The first widely believed and often reported premise was that they Legacy pilots turned off their transponder. That is looking more and more unlikely. Now, we have people murmuring that they turned off their radios (when, all evidence is now pointing to shotty ATC instructions and notoriously, as reported, communications in various parts of the route between Manaus and Brasilia). I think regardless of the investigationˢ۪s outcome, there is still going to be a huge and angry horde of Brazilians refusing to accept the outcome and a new conspiracy theory will have been born.

  • Rick

    FARs are valid in the USA. Here in Brazil the regulations are different in several areas.

    The comment about 20 nm is moot since one is under positive control anyway. One transitions to approach when center says it is time to do it.

    In the states under FARs many airports have IFR approaches but neither towers nor approach control. Center stays with you until you either land or declare a missed approach.

    Here in Brazil an airliner up high in classe A airspace is handed off at the appropriate time to “controle de aproximaÀƒ§Àƒ£o” in control zones or “Àƒ¡reas de controle terminal” which is handled by APP, or if there is none, TWR.

    What is a “possible fact”? And how does a “possible fact” extrapolate into a “HUGE lack of judgement”? And since the Legacy flight recorders have been in the hands of the authorities for a long time, donÀ‚´t you think that if the lack of communication were the result of turning off the radio(s) rather than gaps in the ground antenna spacing, that info would have already been divulged?

    Anyone actually having spent time in cockpits on flights like these would never postulate that the pilots purposely turned off their comm radio.

  • carioCAO

    Something smells fishy around here!
    FARs require aircraft under instrument flight rules to be under ATC control during entire the flight, except when the aircraft approaches an ATA (airport traffic area), in which case he/she is transferred to Approach control, 20 nautical miles out.

    The possible fact that the the American crew actually turned-off their radio, whether or not there was some type of miscommunication between the aircraft and controllers, is a HUGE lack of judgement on the part of that flight crew. Remember, under any circunstances the PIC (pilot-in-command) is ultimately responsible for the safety of his passengers and aircraft, period!


  • Rick

    Years ago aircraft flying instrument flight plans in the Amazon, whether at positive control levels or not, were required to carry high frequency radios with the accompanying, cumbersome antennas. These radios were not dependent on line of sight, but their signals could skip, and could be heard all over the basin even while the planes were communicating on the ground. Now it appears that very high frequncy radios all all that are required, which are line of sight limited, like TV signals. It would appear that the desire to modernize has gotten ahead of the hardware…..

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